Cumberland’s Miners Memorial Weekend
by Lorene Oikawa
Photos by Greg Masuda
The June 12th to 15th weekend was a journey to the past with the 29th Miners Memorial combined with the 44th Annual Pacific Northwest Labour History Association Conference taking place in the Village of Cumberland.
Cumberland is a historic town in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island, about a 1.5 hour drive from Nanaimo and about 10 minutes from Courtenay. Cumberland was once known for having had the most dangerous coal mines in Canada and for the killing [many say murder] of Ginger Goodwin, a union organizer who fought for decent wages and safe working conditions for the miners. It was a diverse group of workers including Japanese Canadian miners, and they were not treated equally.
It is the stories of these workers that is shared at Miners Memorial each year in Cumberland. Both Miners Memorial and the PNLHA conference are working to preserve the history of workers and to broaden the audience for the stories of workers and labour issues.
The weekend schedule was busier than usual with the addition of the PNLHA conference events. The agenda included walking tours, workshops, musical entertainment, pancake breakfast, and community dinner with awards. Workshop topics included stories of Aboriginal, Chinese Canadian, and Japanese Canadian workers. For example, Kirsten McAllister presented on the forced labour of interned Japanese Canadians at the Blue River Road Camp.
One of the special events of Miners Memorial is a graveside vigil and the laying of wreaths at the graves of Ginger Goodwin and miners at the civic cemetery. Also, this year there was a short ceremony at the Japanese Canadian cemetery following the vigil.
Greg Masuda and I represented the Greater Vancouver Japanese Canadian Citizens Association (GVJCCA). Greg’s skills as a photographer and videographer were put to good use as he captured many moments from the events on June 14th in images, and I used words to evoke the images and spirit of the Japanese Canadians who once lived there.
Saturday, June 14, 2014 Cumberland, Royston
The Japanese Canadian cemetery is not a part of the civic cemetery. It’s on a grassy hillside set among the trees. I arrive there before anyone else and it’s so quiet I can hear birds. It was Florence’s idea to go early and secure parking. Florence Bell was my mother’s best friend before the racist act of internment separated the two young girls. My mother, Mae Doi as she was known then, is a third generation Japanese Canadian. She didn’t know why she had to leave her non-Japanese Canadian friend, her dolls, her home, and the place where she was born. She, her siblings, and her parents were shipped to Hastings Park and then to a camp in the Slocan valley, the south eastern part of British Columbia, known as the Kootenays.
In the quiet moments before everyone arrives, I try to think about what I will say. I will be bringing greetings from the GVJCCA and describing my family connection to Cumberland. Faint memories of stories whisper to me like the breeze through the trees.
A crowd has gathered.
A representative from the Cumberland Museum and Archives welcomes everyone and describes the period when Japanese Canadians and Chinese Canadians were not allowed to be buried in the civic cemetery, and had separate burial grounds.
During World War II, the Japanese Canadian cemetery was vandalized. Headstones and markers were knocked down, some removed or moved, and some destroyed. No one was left to look after the cemetery. Japanese Canadian families had been forced to leave their homes and were imprisoned in camps.
In the 1960s some members of the local community worked with members of the Japanese Canadian community who had expressed concern for the neglected cemetery. Unfortunately, no one knew the original location of the headstones or markers or what was there before the vandalism took place. The attempt to restore the cemetery resulted in the surviving headstones and markers being placed in a circle in the middle of the cemetery.
The welcome and introductions are concluded, and I am called up to speak. I share the story of the Doi brothers who travelled from Japan to the US. Two of the brothers made their way up to Canada and settled in the Cumberland area.
My grandfather was born in Cumberland. He had many jobs, starting when he was a young boy. He worked at a dairy, and also in the coal mines with his father. He then worked in the Royston sawmill and then, longing for more excitement, he became a faller. As I speak, I can almost hear the sound of the cross saw biting into a tree.
Relaying the bits and pieces of stories I’ve heard my mother and my uncle tell helps the crowd understand what life was like for one Japanese Canadian family, and how they were a real part of the community, not faceless, nameless government numbers. I end with the tearing apart of the community when Japanese Canadians were declared enemy aliens and forced to leave. The unfairness of the act stabs me, and I feel the pain as I think of my grandparents, my family, and the other Japanese Canadians, who worked hard, loved their homes, had to leave, and never returned.
The ceremony is over, and I realize I neglected to mention my grandfather’s passion for baseball. He was a pitcher for the Sun team, a team associated with the No. 5 mine. He also played for the Cumberland team. He was known for his pitching and the famous Asahi team recruited him to Vancouver for a brief period.
I am fortunate to have Florence who is my personal guide. During the weekend, she takes me on a private tour of No. 1 Japanese Town, No. 5 Japanese Town, and Royston. Royston is a short drive east of Cumberland, and it’s where my mother lived. Florence smiles with a young girl’s twinkle in her eyes when tells me stories of her and my mom attending Minto School.
Florence has a great memory and points out where the Japanese Canadian families lived. “The Nishimura house by the cedar tree, across the road was the Iwaasa house, and the Kimura house was near a path.” I also check out a large dilapidated building which used to be the only Buddhist church in the area. Florence tells me everyone was welcomed by the Japanese Canadians, and she remembers seeing dances and great entertainment on an impressive stage.
Sunday, June 15, 2014 Cumberland, Nanaimo
Sunday finishes with workshops and a plenary, and then I’m on the road, travelling from Cumberland, south, to catch a ferry from Nanaimo. As the ferry slides away from Departure Bay, I contemplate the journey of my ancestors whose travels in the 1800s from Japan to the US and Canada took weeks while my voyage from Vancouver Island to the mainland will be a mere 1.5 hours. Also, I have all the modern conveniences of freshly prepared food, flushing toilets, running water, and emails and entertainment on my smart phone.
Japanese Canadian pioneers built their lives in Canada under harsh conditions, and even when they thought they were settled, they endured more hardship and racism. They survived and thrived, and we owe much to them, including ensuring their stories are not forgotten.
Cumberland Museum and Archives
Pacific Northwest Labour History Association